The Archaeology of an African Desert
Namib by John Kinahan is the first full-length examination of the archaeology and history of the Namib Desert. The author reveals the resilience and ingenuity of desert communities and provides a vivid picture of species’ response to climate change, and ancient strategies to counter ever-present risk. This is a story of human survival over the last one million years in the Namib Desert, one of the most hostile environments on Earth. In this article, the author provides further insight into his upcoming publication.
The Namib Desert on the southwestern coast of Africa is one of the most hostile environments on the planet. Yet, paradoxically, these endless gravel plains and dune-fields have been occupied by modern and earlier human populations for most of the last one million years, leaving a great wealth of evidence. The desert has one of the largest concentrations of hunter-gatherer rock art in Africa; it contains extraordinarily well-preserved ancient nomadic pastoralist encampments, and much else.
I had long worked in the Namib, at the slow and measured pace archaeologists prefer, when, in the late 1990s, all this changed. The desert suddenly became the focus of a uranium boom lead by Australian, Canadian and later, Chinese mining companies; I was engaged to investigate areas slated for prospecting and so became a latter-day nomad, living out of the back of my truck and tramping over this wonderful landscape with backpack and dog. Life continued this way until 2011 when, overnight, the Fukushima disaster dulled the world’s appetite for nuclear energy. Mining camps were quickly dismantled and the drill wagons rumbled away, leaving the Namib silent and empty once more.
Faced by a heap of grimy notebooks, I settled down to write. It is, after all, a dictum of archaeology not to leave major work unpublished and therefore lost to scholarship. But I had covered something like 200,000 square kilometres, documenting over 3,000 archaeological sites, ranging from isolated finds to others involving intricate mapping and logging of tens of thousands of artefacts. This was to be quite a task and the veranda of our home became a laboratory with boxes of pottery, bone and stone, examined, drawn, and photographed eventually deposited in the National Museum.
Writing Namib: the archaeology of an African desert, I followed the advice given by the King to Alice in Wonderland, to “begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop”. The earliest traces, mainly large stone axes and choppers, yielded only very general insights but the texture of the evidence became rapidly more detailed from the end of the Last Glacial Maximum, about 12,000 years ago. Patterns of movement over the desert became apparent as hunter-gatherer bands retreated to the escarpment in times of drought, evolving a complex social life and an abundant rock art. A picture began to emerge showing opportunistic pulses of movement over large distances to reach remote water sources.
About 6,000 years ago the Namib entered a cycle of extreme aridity and large parts of the landscape were abandoned, to be little used for the next few thousand years. One exception was the 650 square kilometre desert massif, Dâures, which became a refugium with more than one thousand rock art sites testifying to a unique florescence of ritual life. This evidence uncovered much that had so far eluded archaeologists in southern Africa, going beyond the rock art to reveal the actual performance and paraphernalia of ritual rainmaking as well as the initiation of young men and women into the roles and responsibilities of adult life. Fundamental to this emerging tradition was the shamanic formula of occultation, in which the ritual specialist disappears from view, re-emerging to perform his work.
The next development began about 2,000 years ago with the acquisition of pottery and livestock on the frontier with African farming communities advancing into this region. It seems that hunter gatherer shamans were the intermediaries, serving as rainmakers and becoming in this way wealthy stock owners. As pastoralism became the dominant way of life competition for resources increased and, uniquely in southern Africa, the people of the Namib Desert began to harvest and store plant foods, including grass seed taken from the nests of harvester ants and the flesh of wild melons. The landscape was effectively domesticated: pastoralists controlled region-wide exchange networks and regulated access to pasture in what had become a very risk-averse economy.
Trading contact on the coast with visiting European merchants drew the Namib pastoralists into a complex web of relations that were ultimately to their disadvantage. Glass beads and other items of trade proved less valuable than indigenous commodities that maintained their worth and could be bartered for livestock. In the late 19th century German colonists arrived and relations with local communities quickly deteriorated. My field research in the Namib documented the wagon tracks of early traders, surprisingly still visible, and the desert railway constructed later by the Germans to move their troops to the interior, using now destitute pastoralists as forced labour. In this way I was able to add archaeological evidence to the well-known documentary record of the colonial genocide.
The final chapter in the archaeological record of the Namib is the 1915 Allied invasion which wrested the colony from German control. Again, the desert yielded extraordinarily well-preserved evidence ranging from entrenchments and shell craters to cavalry bivouac camps and heliograph signal posts, a close parallel to the contemporaneous battlefield sites of the Arab Revolt and T.E. Lawrence fame. But the Namib had one last surprise to reveal: a secret Nazi oathing site used in 1938 when victory and the return of the much-loved colony seemed an attainable goal to the burgeoning membership of an underground movement eclipsed by history.
In writing Namib I set out to rescue the archaeological past from the anonymity of prehistory and link it both chronologically and materially with the documented historical past. The country of Namibia is one of the youngest nation states in Africa but it has a depth of human history that goes back to the dawn of our species.
The archaeology of an African desert
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John Kinahan is an independent Namibian scholar, Adjunct Professor of Archaeology at Arizona State University and Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand. His research on the archaeology of the Namib has been widely published internationally.